Recollections from My Calcutta Trip, January 2013

murals of a subway stop. first two blocks are the stanzas in Bengali, second two blocks in English
The same voice murmurs in these desultory lines 
which is born in wayside pansies
letting hasty glances pass by. 
Fireflies, Rabindranath Tagore

I never had a chance to write about my trip to Calcutta / Kolkata because it was not part of the organized class trip. I have made a couple of Indian Bengali friends in Madison and I have been reading Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland lately. The novel 
has a lot about Calcutta and it brings back a lot of memories. Here is a best attempt at reconstructing the three days that happened 1.5 years ago at the home of Ravi Shankar and Tagore and former capital of British India.

On the way to Delhi Airport, I passed 
graffiti that said "I hate my life" on highway wall. I didn't know I had to print my itinerary required for entering the Delhi airport. Armed police check at every entrance gate in fear of terrorists. I had to pay 100 rupees for using the services to print. It occurred to me that airports should be used for homeless people during the nights. But then that would also require needless security. On the plane, two Indian men sat next to me. I took a copy of the free newspapers. When I put my newspaper in the backseat pocket, the man next to me decidedly picked it up a few minutes later and started reading it. I liked the street-like tacit agreement between the two of us and his assumption that I wouldn’t mind. He put it back in my section of the backseat pocket after he was done.

The Kolkata Airport was much smaller than any other second tier city’s you’d see in China, but political scientists warn against judging a region by its airports, so I didn’t mind. I looked for my host and friend from college Vedika at the baggage pickup area. I didn’t have an Indian phone so I was super anxious that Vedika wouldn’t find me. After 2/3 of the Delhi group left, she appeared and waved. Vedika was wearing a black polka-dotted white shirt and hugged me. She looked classy. I remember the joke she told me that she always dressed better in India than in the U.S. because her mom makes sure she looks nice before she leaves the house. Usually at our SoCal college she wore a t-shirt or a sweater, but looked very pretty in anything, in my opinion. She walked with me to her driver, who was a handsome man in his 30s.

We passed ads for the rising female politician Mamata Banerjee (Chief Minister of West Bengal to this day). Transexual hijras with spiritual power tapped the car window asking for money.

Vedika’s class/caste would soon stand out for me more and more over the next few days. Her house had several (Bengali) servants; her father is a Marwari businessman and her mother a housewife. Her grandmother was a stern woman from Allahabad who adored Swami Vivekananda and questioned judgmentally me about religion in China. (“India has spirituality!! Everything is one! We don't negate any religion. Christ. Buddha.”) I didn’t bow down to touch her feet ritually when saying hi, which probably irked her. I managed to do so when saying goodbye. As Marwaris, they were all vegetarians. The house was spacious with several marbled rooms and some vintage black and white wedding photos.

The servants were in awe of me throughout, but in an endearing and warm way and I even drew a card for them when I left. I also gave the driver a tip, per suggestion of Vedika. He was also bashful but happy about accepting it. I never got to know the driver’s name. He did not hang any talisman on the car’s rear window, because Vedika’s dad told him not to. He was a nice man, though he got into a fight with the neighbors one day and knocked on the family door in anguish. Vedika’s grandmother opened the door and ushered us quickly to other parts of the house. Eventually Vedika’s dad told him to stop the fight.

During my stay, the family also hosted some form of puja. I witnessed five pandits chanting slokas, two who are Sanskrit university professors from Banaras. I asked, "How come professors can do this kind of work?""They have vacations." Then I saw the pandits bless Vedika and her brother (in between phone calls). Before we left the house for the Kali Temple, the private, home pandit sprayed water around the house as well as on our heads--don't get tricked by the pandits at the Kali temple."

The Tollygunge

The novel The Lowland’s plot is centered around Maoist insurgencies in India, yet it opens with the Tolly Club in Calcutta, which is very apt. Started by Englishmen in the 1800s, it is the colonial vestige of Calcutta and the country-club signifier of elitism. Although the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front governed West Bengal for many decades, it never eradicated that part of society. Vedika’s father insisted on taking me there with the family and told me how it took him years to get exclusive access membership. They are used to drinking before dinner. I refrained from drinking entirely that night because I was in my sanyasi (renouncer) phase in terms of drinking; still kind of trying to keep it up today as well. The interior and food was underwhelming and I didn’t get to see the garden because it was already night time. We had stale conversations, probably because I felt uncomfortable with the privilege. I didn’t like Vedika’s younger brother, who was arrogant and and drank alcohol and drove us back home. (I recalled this event later when we found out that Tamar, CMC class 2014 died in a car accident in Bolivia during the India trip.) He probably didn’t like me either.

Excerpt from The Lowland:

"Thanks to Cruickshank the villa was restored, and a country club was established in its place. Cruickshank was named the first president. It was for the British that the city’s tramline was extended so far south in the early 1930s. It was to facilitate their journey to the Tolly Club, to escape the city’s commotion, and to be among their own. 
Now if they happened to pass the Tolly Club together on their way to or from the tram depot, Udayan called it an affront. People still filled slums all over the city, children were born and raised on the streets. Why were a hundred acres walled off for the enjoyment of a few? 
Subhash remembered the imported trees, the jackals, the bird cries. The golf balls heavy in their pockets, the undulating green of the course. He remembered Udayan going over the wall first, challenging him to follow. Crouching on the ground the last evening they were there, trying to shield him. 
But Udayan said that golf was the pastime of the comprador bourgeoisie. He said the Tolly Club was proof that India was still a semicolonial country, behaving as if the British had never left. 
He pointed out that Che, who had worked as a caddy on a golf course in Argentina, had come to the same conclusion. That after the Cuban revolution, getting rid of the golf courses was one of the first things Castro had done."

My stomach disagreed with me on Friday so we didn’t do much. I thought it was a lagged Delhi belly from the stuff I had in Delhi, but who would know. I had copious amounts of chai and biscuits. I drank a lot of water, though Vedika’s sweet mother said, “This is India, you don’t need to drink that much water.” So I stopped and still felt fine. But I didn’t dare try the street food vada pav and made only one exception for the syrup dipped ice gola, but didn’t like it so gave the rest to a street kid.
Outdoor Shrine for Shiva

Over the following days, we went to a mandir and we both made offerings; we saw a banyan tree with deities and Vedika made an offering. I later learned that these are for / constructed by dalits who are not permitted to enter mandirs. We saw a Vivekananda Sport Club that also had a statue honoring Anagarika Dharmapala, "a Ceylonese Buddhist revivalist and writer. He was one of the founding contributors of Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism and Buddhism. He was also a pioneer in the revival of Buddhism in India after it had been virtually extinct there for several centuries, and he was the first Buddhist in modern times to preach the Dharma in three continents: Asia, North America, and Europe." 

We played board games with other vegetarian college students-home-for-the-winter--

Veg burgers as snacks

We patronized a shisha parlor and a dance club along with Pretti, unfortunately on a quiet Sunday night. Pretti, a recent graduate from a three-year college, had many wild stories about watching David Guetta live and taking care of drunk people in England. I asked if anything like hooking up happened, and she was amazingly stunned silent by the question and whispered “no.” I realized that the diaspora still kept up with social mores of their home in that way.

Ganesha guarding Pretti's house

We also went to the marble Victoria Memorial building. The tickets were very cheap for locals. Everyone in the extremely long line was amazingly patient, and Vedika led me to cut in line, both when entering the main gate and entering the building. I felt kind of embarrassed but no one seemed to care. We laughed at the pretentious quote of Queen Victoria about how her empire looked out for the interests of Indian dominions inside the building. 

weren't allowed to take pics but this big lie just had to be documented-- "We shall respect the rights, diginity and honor of the Indian princes as our own and we desire that they as'well as our subjects should enjoy that prosperity and that social advancement which can only be secured by internal peace and good government"

On the most westernized Park (King) Street, we went to the Oxford University Press Bookstore, which looked just like the bookstore in Swades. The collection was officious and it wasn’t as good as the bookstore I saw in a Delhi mall, which had Arundhati Roy and Han Han. We also bought a delicious rum ball at Flury’s. 

Rum ball

This is the well-known bakery that gets a lot of honor mentions in Bollywood films, though my recent friend still thought American stores had more varieties. The bakery also had a cafe, and I saw a Sikh drinking tea with a businessman there, as well as several white foreigners. We had (badly imitated, overly fried) Chinese food with two fellow international CMCers also traveling in India at Flavors of China. There was a security scanner for weapons, but the someone said that it would be easy sneak a gun in anyways. (Similar situation for Wisconsin--a lot of Madison shops ban concealed firearms but it is allowed by the state.) While we waited on a red light after we exited, a girl-beggar approached us and we both had to look away. A flute seller also played music next to us.

flute seller on Park Street

I saw faded Communist symbols. I visited the College Street famous for second-handed books, but most English books were too technical and I regretted not understanding Bengali to buy the interesting looking comics.  Vedika sad that University of Calcutta was nearby but didn't regard it as the best school for students.

I also posed next to this epic slogan near College Street, and another slogan that said "Struggle to Study. Study to Change Society." Another hand-made poster said "Culture Sanction of Rape must stop!"

We visited the Asiatic Society that had an incredibly shoddy interior and bureaucratic process for visitors (probably because rarely did anyone visit). A man served as a docent and had to be translated by Vedika. Later an English-speaking female professor of history also introduced some of the old exhibitions items--sutras written on pattra leaves--to us hastily. 

Asiatic Society
After we left, people started going to work (12pm). I was so amazed and I still recount it again. That memory probably has merged with other street scenes I have seen in films. We ate lunch at famous Indian chain Cafe Coffee Day, and I liked the food. A lot of tourist sites closed for several hours in between each day as well as on my last day, including the modern art museum, typical of the unavailable Calcutta. So we walked around and I saw a few boys playing soccer and a lot of beautiful trees. and there was even a Ravi Shankar cover show that night, but Vedika wasn’t that interested. I also bought a table cloth from the bougie fabric store Fab India.
Later on the plane back to Delhi, the two men sitting next to me were those kind of airplane friends, who complained about the Calcutta’s slow pace and red tape. They started saying how the people were so lazy and never got their work done. I was surprised no other person came to their objection on the plane. The more I read about it now, let it be from writer Amit Chaudhuri or some other source, I wish to visit Calcutta again for longer periods of time.